Letter from Peter Riley

15th February 2010

Dear CLR,

Of course clarity is not socially determined. How could anyone entertain for a moment such a balmy idea? Clarity is fought for. Have we really lost touch so completely in this place with the central message, the “old romantic wisdom” and its offer of reward: support over phases of transition, consolation for tragedy?

O unbewölkets Leben! / So rein und tief und klar. —

Not only rein and klar but also tief, all three terms interdetermined, and so possibly at last the yearning is stilled, and the “sweet, good old man” settles to his end. And “thousands of stars”! But in Cambridge there is a preference for the clouds that hide them?

Obscurity is a natural condition of poetry. To fail to acknowledge that is a cowardice and an evasion. It is poetry’s song condition which it always fails to renounce. Listen to any song and it is obvious. It speaks in shadow. It has to because it is not alone, it is not free to speak. As a developed faculty obscurity opens the text to far laterality and distant sightings, it shakes off the fetters of sense and relevance. But why, to what point? Surely the ambition must be to pass beyond the pleasures (and pride) of obscurity into the real world without losing the reach, and then possibly total sense, a kind of paradise.

Why Cambridge should become a fortress of shadow I don’t know, blanketing its discourse in all the mechanisms (symbolical, mystical, etymological, psychological, phenomenological, etc.) of undermining, ever evading the question of transfer. Absolutely refusing to move out of the shadow into light, obstinately generation after generation, coddling itself in the ramifications of the undertext, the secret. But the text of the world, that we work by, is an evidence, it is in front of us and the only way not to see it is to close your eyes.

As if we could rest there. As if that were any kind of road into death. It is necessary to be heard. Der alte horcht, der alte schweigt. Der Tod hat sich zu ihm geneigt. What do we offer the old fellow if he can’t hear us at all, and sinks into death in a fog of mere language?

And of course, if clarity is … etc. and all the coercive rigmarole of political claim that follows, from step to step until finally the silent reader is criminalised for existing—surely the dirtiest trick ever played on a poetry-reading public in the western world.

Peter Riley

P.S. I’m aware, of course, that it is possible to make out a perfectly good case, from a different angle, for clarity as socially determined. But in that case, if it is going to be a real clarity “social” will have to stop being a dirty word, and the poets may not like that, though probably people would.

[The German is Mayrhofer, via Schubert. 1. Der Sieg (The Victory): O unclouded life! So pure and deep and clear! 2. Nachtstück (Nocturne): The old man hears, the old man is silent. Death is inclined towards him.]